UN General Assembly isn’t the right forum

Published on December 27, 2008

By Nehginpao Kipgen


The Brunei Times – December 27, 2008


In a vote of 80 to 25 with 45 abstentions, the U.N. General Assembly on 24 December 2008 adopted a resolution condemning human rights violations by the Burmese military regime. The resolution called for the release of over 2,100 political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi.


The world’s highest body criticized the military regime’s political road-map as “not transparent, inclusive, free and fair, and that the procedures established for the drafting of the (country’s new) constitution resulted in the de facto exclusion of the opposition from the process.”


The General Assembly also expressed concerns over “continuing practice of enforced disappearances, use of violence against peaceful demonstrators, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment.”


The Burmese military, to nobody’s surprise, categorically rejected the resolution by accusing the Assembly of making a “blatant interference” in its internal political process. The regime in a direct challenge to the international community said it is not bound by the resolution.


The Burmese government’s representative told the Assembly that the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has made a significant political progress and the country is on its way to having a multi-party general election in 2010, the fifth stage of the seven-step roadmap towards a democratic transition.


The absence of international community’s coordinated approach was again witnessed. Of the 10 ASEAN members, in which Burma is also a member, 4 members – Brunei Darussalam, Laos, Malaysia, Vietnam – voted against the resolution. Other 4 members – Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand – abstained from voting; Cambodia was not present for the vote.


While western countries, including the United States, supported the General Assembly’s motion, Burma was once again defended by two of U.N. Security Council permanent members, China and Russia.


India voted against the resolution, while Israel and Japan voted in favor of the resolution. Zimbabwe, a country which is also on the radar screens of the United Nations, unsurprisingly defended Burma by voting against the resolution.


Resolutions in the U.N. General Assembly are largely symbolic and are not legally binding. Successive resolutions have been passed and statements have been released since 1991 by different U.N. agencies with little or no impact on the military regime.


The attention caused by this resolution will, as in the past, gradually die down after making some news headlines. One significant point to note though, is that the Burmese democratic movement is still a concern to the international community.


The U.N. Security Council on 11 October 2007 issued a Presidential Statement calling for the military regime to release all political prisoners and “create the necessary conditions for a genuine dialogue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and all concerned parties and ethnic groups in order to achieve an inclusive national reconciliation with the direct support of the United Nations.” That too was not followed up with any concrete action.


U.N. resolutions and statements have not deterred the military from pursuing its agenda. U.N. special envoys come and go without achieving any substantive results. Effective U.N. intervention could only take place when a legally binding resolution can be passed by the Security Council.


Article 41 under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter states that: “The Security Council may decide what measures not involving the use of armed force are to be employed to give effect to its decisions, and it may call upon the Members of the United Nations to apply such measures…”


For any Security Council binding resolution to happen, the support of all five permanent members is necessary. This is why the Burmese military leaders have been vigorously wooing China and Russia by strengthening economic and military ties, among others.


Without the Security Council’s endorsement, resolutions and statements by the different U.N. agencies, including the General Assembly, would only remain as paper tigers. The good offices of the Secretary General also has limited roles, and the Secretary General himself is as frustrated as anyone.


If there is no change in the veto power system, unilateral action could be one other option to look into. If neither of the two options are exercised, the international community should explore other possible pragmatic strategies.


The U.N. General Assembly is not the right forum that can deliver change in Burma.


Nehginpao Kipgen is the General Secretary of US-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com) and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).

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